Possible cuts to school funding could leave kids on the curb

Red lights flashing on a big yellow bus, doors opening and a small boy skipping into his dad's arms -- it is a scene that played out at Kennewick's Aspen Hills apartment complex Friday, much like it does every weekday in neighborhoods across America.

But yet another round of state budget cuts threaten to make that scenario ever rarer -- or nonexistent -- in Washington.

To stave off a projected $2 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire last week sent a list of cost-cutting ideas to legislators for consideration during the upcoming Nov. 28 special session. One of the options is to cut state money to local districts for busing kids.

Cutting the transportation money is not among the options that will be included in the governor's budget proposal. But that doesn't mean legislators couldn't include it in budget cuts they agree on during the session.

Such a cut would create safety issues for Tri-City kids, raise household expenses for families and burden already strapped districts even more, Mid-Columbia school officials said.

The state sends about $320 million to school districts to run, staff and maintain their buses each year, said Chris Barron, a spokesman for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The option included on the governor's list would cut $220 million of that and shift responsibility for transporting students to parents and local transit agencies beginning next summer, Barron said.

Under federal law, schools are obligated to transport students with special needs or disabilities, which is why not all of the bus money can be cut.

That means one of the buses that pulled up at Aspen Hills on Friday would keep running no matter what legislators decide.

It let off a 6-year-old boy who attends a special program at Cottonwood Elementary in Badger Canyon -- about 10 miles from the apartments. Alijah Chavez couldn't get to Cottonwood without the bus, said Andre Ursua, who was picking him up.

"My fiancee is at work, and she has our car," Ursua said.

Playing nearby was Ursua's daughter, Maia, who had just been dropped off by another bus from her local elementary school.

They are two of 5,000 students that ride the yellow buses through Kennewick 180 days a year, said district spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper.

The district spends close to $5 million a year running the buses, she said. Half of that money comes from the state. Local property taxes make up the rest.

That pays for nearly 100 buses and more than 100 drivers and attendants.

Numbers in Pasco are similar. Richland, which has about two-thirds of the bigger districts' enrollment, has proportionally smaller numbers.

About one-third of all students ride the bus to school each day in the three big districts. Ridership is higher in the surrounding rural areas.

Nearly half of all kids going to school in the Kiona-Benton City School District ride the bus, said Superintendent Rom Castilleja.

In Finley, just more than half of students use school buses, said Superintendent Lance Hahn.

And in Burbank, ridership is much higher still -- more than three-quarters of all kids get on buses each day, said Superintendent Lou Gates.

Ironically, new state rules paying for more of those districts' busing costs just kicked in this year.

Elementary school kids who live within a mile of their school are expected to walk. For middle and high school students, the distance is 1.5 miles. The state hasn't considered those kids when it calculates transportation money to districts.

But Burbank and Ki-Be bus some kids who live that close to schools, because the students otherwise would have to cross dangerous highways.

Finley will start busing kids who live just on the other side of Highway 397 within a month, Hahn said.

Those districts now can recoup the money spent on transporting those kids, as long as the districts can prove that it would be unsafe for the students to walk to school.

More kids walking would create huge traffic safety issues for rural students, Hahn said.

Public transit is not an option in those districts. Parents would have to drive their kids if there were no school buses picking them up.

That would mean a lot of added expense, given that some students in these spread-out districts travel 15 or 20 miles to get to school.

"It could have a major impact on low-income families," Castilleja said.

Those families often don't drive the latest gas-saving cars. Driving back and forth to school twice a day can really add to their expenses, he said.

It could mean losing some kids to neighboring districts in cases where families live near a district boundary. In some parts of the district, it is a shorter drive to Tapteal Elementary in West Richland or Whitstran Elementary in Prosser than it is to go to Benton City, Castilleja said.

The small districts already suffer from declining enrollment, which means money from the state for their schools is shrinking. If transportation cuts lead to more kids leaving, they might have to shut down entire programs, which in turn would prompt more parents to pull their kids out of the small districts' schools, Castilleja said.

"It's a downward spiral I can't stop," he said. "The Legislature doesn't fully understand the impact (of cuts) on small districts."

The possible cuts would take millions of dollars out of already stretched budgets in the big districts too.

But most of all, they would affect kids, school officials said.

"More students would be walking, crossing dangerous roadways and (going) longer distances to catch city buses," said Cooper, the Kennewick spokeswoman.

Currently, kids from east Pasco ride the bus to Chiawana High School, on the other end of town, said district spokeswoman Leslee Caul. With a freeway running across the city, that is easy and cost-efficient for school buses.

"But to do that without a bus system -- that gets more complicated," Caul said.

In Richland, public transit doesn't run to some of the outer edges of the district, or taking it requires changing buses several times, said Mark Panther, director of support services.

"That creates a disparity for a lot of (families)," Panther said. "Some kids have parents who are sick or don't have a car."

Having hundreds more cars show up when schools let out creates safety issues too, he said. And all the extra car trips add to school transportation's environmental footprint, Panther said.

Calculations by state school officials confirm that.

If the transportation cut were enacted, about 380,000 more kids statewide would be driven to schools in private cars, said Barron, the OSPI spokesman.

Using a formula provided by the American School Bus Council, OSPI calculated that almost 35 million additional gallons of gas would be consumed to take those kids to school, Barron said.

That would add to pollution -- and to families' expenses.

Each family would spend about $650 more on gas each year on average, Barron said.

The cost to parents statewide would be almost $130 million.